Chinese strategic analysts have hit out at the United States' move to discuss a nuclear deal with Vietnam, which would reportedly involve sharing of nuclear fuel and technology and backing Vietnam's right to enrich its own fuel.

A leading Chinese strategic expert on nuclear policy and disarmament told The Hindu on Sunday that any move to allow Vietnam, which neighbours China, to enrich its own uranium would be “double standards” on the part of the U.S. and undermine U.S. efforts to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.

“If the U.S.-Vietnam nuclear deal is a copy of the U.S. deal with the United Arab Emirates, there is no fuss. But if it [involves] enrichment of spent fuel, that is the matter we worry about,” Zhai Dequan, the deputy secretary general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told The Hindu in an interview.

“In theory, there is no abnormality for an NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] member-country to make peaceful use of nuclear energy; what matters is the enrichment of the spent fuel,” he said. “Yet, if another ASEAN country, Myanmar, does the same, there would be accusations and pressure. This is called double standards.”

The U.S. is reportedly in “advanced discussions” with Vietnam on a deal that would facilitate the sharing of nuclear fuel and technologies, as well as preserve Hanoi's right to enrich its own fuel, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The report has triggered concerns in China, coming against the backdrop of heightened tensions in relations between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours, including Vietnam, over long-pending territorial disputes over the South China Sea. At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered Beijing by calling for a resolution of the dispute “without coercion”, and saying it was in the “national interest” of the U.S.

The Foreign Ministry here described her remarks as “an attack on China.”

Mr. Zhai said the deal would likely be seen in China in the context of Ms. Clinton's remarks, which suggested a move by the U.S. to “internationalise” the South China Sea issue as well as expand its footprint in the region.

Like the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, this deal, too, has been perceived in China as part of a greater American “containment” strategy. “[The deal] means the U.S. is strengthening cooperation with Vietnam to contain China,” said Fan Jishe, a researcher of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an interview with the official China Daily. “To Washington, the geo-strategic consideration has surpassed nuclear non-proliferation.”

The deal follows renewed debate over nuclear non-proliferation in recent months following China's announcement that it would set up two additional nuclear reactors in Chashma in Pakistan. The deal, analysts said, went against the mandated, but non-enforceable, guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which bans the transfer of nuclear technology to non-NPT countries. Chinese analysts have, however, defended the deal, and denied that it would weaken the non-proliferation regime, arguing the reactors would be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

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